15 December 2017

DEDICATION OR OBSESSION?

“Dedication…To commit to an activity and pursue it right to the end until the goal has been achieved. There is no going back. It’s a complete focus, no letting up, or back tracking when the mood takes you. You have to follow the course right to the end. For me, dedication borders on obsession…”

Christine Ohuruogu

The scene is the Birdsnest Stadium in Beijing. The date is 19 August 2008. Christine Ohuruogu takes her place on the blocks, knowing that the next fifty seconds will define her in a strange way. It is the 400 metres Olympic final. She has reason to be confident having won her heat and her semi-final. What is more, she is the reigning World champion but Sanya Richards of USA is probably favourite.

Christine starts cautiously and is well behind at the half-way stage. She does her running in the second half of the race, coming home in 49.62 just ahead of Shericka Williams of Jamaica with Sanya in third. The gold medal is hers!

She told me immediately after the race, “I had a race plan but as usual that goes out the window. People ask if I knew that Sanya had gone off very fast. Well, no! She was in lane 7 so I could not see her. All I had to work off was the Russian girl. At 200 I was annoyed that I had not stuck with the Russian and had left myself too much work to do. But the way I run, if you are going to beat me you have to fight me. I knew the race would be won in the last 50 metres. That is when people are dying and I don’t die in the last 50. So if you can keep your cool and keep relaxed, you have a chance. And it worked!”

Reflecting on the race nearly three years on, she says: “It’s funny because I don’t remember much. I honestly don’t. I remember only certain points of the race. I don’t remember much of what was going on before the race. I remember walking down the finishing straight towards my blocks and seeing my brothers. I remember thinking on another day we would have a laugh because they are always taking the mick out of me. But today they looked so serious.”

“It is a very strange time because you are in a complete bubble, those three days of the 400. You are completely focussed on what you need to do so you don’t take much in of what is going on. You don’t focus your energy on things you don’t need to focus on. So I don’t remember very much.”

“I remember the first 200 metres where I knew I was a bit behind but I did not panic. That is something that I will always remember, that I did not panic in an Olympic final. I didn’t worry or get frustrated. I think I was a little annoyed with myself for being so far down but it was not enough to shake my faith in myself.”

“I remember the last 50 metres which seemed like forever. I remember running and overtaking Sanya and thinking, ‘Oh, my gosh, what am I going to do when I cross the line?’ I kinda knew at that point that I had won. It’s like I’d seen it happen before. What happened was how I imagined it to happen in my head. I remember running and thinking, ‘This is actually coming true’ and, ‘What do I do when I finish?’ You didn’t really want it to finish because you weren’t too sure how you were going to react.”

As we sit in the reception area at Lee Valley, North London, where Christine trains, we are occasionally disturbed by school kids who want an autograph or a photo. Christine obliges but then says to me with no false modesty. “I don’t get it! Why do they want photos with me?” I explain in case she has forgotten that she is Olympic Champion. She shrugs and protests that she is nothing special. “I don’t see myself as a celebrity or better than anyone else. Because I have got that in my head, I behave as normal. Maybe that is why I find it harder to deal with the attention than some people because I don’t really expect it.”

It seems that no article can be written about Christine without reference to the drugs ban. The facts are these. In 2006 she received a one-year ban from competition for missing three out-of-competition drug tests, known as the ‘whereabouts system.’ Her one-year ban for missing these tests, expired on 5 August 2007. The British Olympic Association also imposed a lifetime ban from Olympic competition but this was lifted on appeal.

The ‘whereabouts system’ that was in place at the time required athletes to give to the authorities 5 one-hour slots in the allocated week, i.e. an hour each working day of the week wherever you happened to be. For example “I will be at Lee Valley on Monday 10-11am. Tuesday I will be at my house 5-6pm.” It was a complicated system, particularly for athletes with multiple training venues and busy lives. If you changed your plans you were supposed to inform the authorities each time. On three occasions Christine failed to be in the place she had notified the authorities.

The one-year ban and the subsequent successful appeal is an indication that Christine had fallen foul of the regulations but also a recognition that there was no suggestion of an actual drug offence.  The fact that it is still brought up rankles the athlete. “It is very irritating but I think I have learned to understand the nature of the world of media, and unfortunately it is not very kind to its subjects. I began to realise that people like to have that kind of tag to put on you. They are looking for a reaction, and if the headlines can give them that then so be it.”

“It does bother me in a sense because it is like something that has hung over my head a lot of the time. The situation has been explained. It wasn’t malice or deliberate or intent to flout the rules so I don’t see why it is still an issue. But it is just something I have to learn to ignore. I would like to wish it away but it is something I am going to have to live with. It is something I am going to have to deal with and that is just my cross to bear.” Her Christian faith plays a huge role in her life. “It is what I hold on to. Sport is very fickle and when we rely on ourselves to do sport, that can really screw you up – especially when you are not doing what you are supposed to be doing. If you are not running what you should be running and you are not achieving what you should be achieving, it can really mess you up.”

“It is nice for me to know that there is a plan in place and whatever I do or achieve, there is always something bigger. It is good to be reminded of that. There are so many lessons that we can learn and that gives me a positive attitude and teaches me a lot about myself and how I am supposed to behave towards other people, competitors etc.”

“I think having faith allows you to be a lot more gracious. Much as you want to beat your competitors, you have a more human way of looking at people, and respecting them. Jesus said we were to love our neighbours – even the ones who don’t necessarily like us and we find hard to like.”

“I have a church that I have always gone to. I like to go and sit quietly and set myself up for the week. It is always nice to remember what my position is, what my morals are, what my values are and to think about how I can implement them on a day-to day basis – and not just on Sundays or when I go to church. It reminds me that we have to take our lives outside.”

What does she find difficult? “I tend to worry a lot. I like it when Jesus says, ‘Give me your burdens and I will give you peace and rest.’ You can be inundated by everything that is happening. As a sportsperson you are being challenged every way possible; visually and physically. You can be overwhelmed by everything that is going on – especially in a championship environment. It is nice to have that safety net of Jesus saying ‘If you are worried, come to me and it will be all right.’”

As an East London girl, Christine often finds herself used as the face of the London Olympics. She was described by The Times as, ‘the embodiment of the vibrant, multicultural bid for London 2012.’ As she says herself, “I could literally walk to the stadium from my mum’s house. It is very exciting. I can’t believe how close it is. It can be worrying – it depends on how you look at it. It is going to be an exciting time for London – for East London, Stratford, where I am from. I don’t think we could ever have dreamed that it would happen. At the moment, I don’t think much about the games. That is for when it comes.

There will be pressure, and I am not going to run away from it, but the worst thing I could do is to build even more pressure on myself now. There will be pressure because I am from East London, a stone’s throw from the stadium and also I am defending champion – but it won’t do me any good to stress about it.”

Earlier this year Christine was part of the GB team which took a gold medal in the World Indoor championship. “I typically don’t run indoor. Istanbul was my second ever 400 indoor. I did a relay in 2006 when the Russians broke the World record – that was not a run that I remember fondly. So I had a bit of apprehension before this race and wasn’t sure what to expect. As a team we knew we would definitely ‘medal’, just not sure what colour. To come out with a gold medal was great. We knew that Russia and America had strong teams. I don’t think we really believed we could win gold. It is nice to have another gold medal to add to my collection so it will sit quite highly in my list of achievements.” It will set her up nicely for London.

Christine comes across as a normal East London girl with a talent for running. Her life is shaped by the Christian values she has grown up with. Not even the 2012 Olympics is going to faze her.

MAJOR MEDALS

INDIVIDUAL 400 METRES

2006 COMMONWEALTH GAMES GOLD

2007 WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP GOLD

2008 OLYMPIC GOLD

4 X 400 METRES RELAY

2005 WORLD CHAMPIONSHIPS BRONZE

2007 WORLD CHAMPIONSHIPS BRONZE

2012 WORLD CHAMPIONSHIPS INDOOR GOLD

OLYMPIC TRACK RECORD

2004

400 METRES – SEMI FINAL

4 X 400 METRES RELAY – FOURTH

2008

400 METRES – FIRST

4 X 400 METRES RELAY

Based on an exclusive interview with Stuart Weir – who has watched Christine win her Olympic Gold and run in three world championships